About 70 sixth-graders at Morse Middle School held part of ancient Rome during their social studies classes on Tuesday when a guest speaker brought to their classroom old coins struck during the reign of the caesars.
Dawson Lewis of Pierre visited Mark Halling’s classroom to talk about the money used during the beginnings of Western civilization and how coins played a part of politics and culture in the Roman Empire. Lewis gave his presentation to each of Halling’s three ancient history classes, using Roman coins from his personal collection as teaching aids.
He told the students that the currency of the Roman Empire wasn’t only important economically, the coins were also important politically to the caesars. The Roman emperors had their images placed on the coins used to pay their soldiers as a means to reassure the Roman legions and the rest of the population that they had a strong leader.
“Coins were ways of transmitting messages,” Lewis said.
Lewis, a software designer, had the students in the social studies classes divide into groups of threes. Then an assistant, William Lewis — his son who is also enrolled in Halling’s class — distributed sets of three Roman coins from the 4th century to each of the small groups.
According to Lewis, the origins of European money were centered with the ancient Greeks, who conducted trade throughout the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. The city-state of Lydia first struck coins at about 600 BC, using gold and silver the Greeks found in local streams.
Although Rome was basically a small village at 600 BC, the Romans expanded their influence throughout what is now known as Italy and Sicily by about 250 BC. The Romans kept expanding their power into neighboring lands until they had built an empire. The first Roman emperor appeared in 44 BC with the rise of Julius Caesar to power.
By that time, Roman soldiers occupied many lands that now include Spain, France, Greece, Egypt and the Middle East. Lewis said the caesars had to pay the legions in those conquered lands with coins so the Roman soldiers would remain content and loyal to the empire.
Lewis added that newly-struck coins could also inform soldiers in far-off lands about their new caesar when one came into power and also carry messages. As an example, Lewis referred to one coin the students were given that featured the image of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus.
Probus ruled the empire from 276 to 282 AD, and Rome reconquered unstable parts of the empire, including Germany and Asia Minor. Probus had his image placed on Roman coins that showed him wearing armor and having a spear. Lewis said that image was a warning to Probus’ enemies and a message to bolster the confidence of the imperial legions.
Lewis also described Roman coins that offered clemency to rebellious soldiers and announced the move of the imperial capital from Rome to Constantinople.
At the end of each social studies class, Lewis had the students strike their own coins using pieces of lead, steel dies and a large mallet. He described the method as similar to the methods used by workers living 1,700 years ago to make coins for the Roman caesars.
Lewis also distributed Roman coins to about 40 of the sixth-grade students who scored well on a quiz located at his personal Web site, www.mycoinpage.com. The quiz offered questions about Probus, other Roman leaders and Roman currency.
While Roman coins are part of ancient history, they aren’t necessarily rare, since workers would make a quarter of a billion of them annually to pay the imperial army. However, Lewis told the Pierre students that he thought of the coins as “pieces of time.”